John Galt looks a lot like a cult leader.
After having read the first couple of chapters of part three of Atlas Shrugged, something started to look mighty familiar from my research for Simon Peter: John Galt has nearly every characteristic of a doomsday millenarian cult leader.
First, John Galt approaches people – or has them approached – when they’re psychologically vulnerable. He targets people who are in the midst of exceptional crises, in this case, generally the failure of their business or some other great professional failure.
Second, he says that they’re really the best people in the world, and that they deserve to be loved. He says he loves them more than anyone else ever has.
Third, he isolates them in a community cut off from the rest of the world, where he controls who they see and how they contact (if at all) the outside world. Part of his pitch is demanding that they sacrifice all of their material possessions to belong to a special community of believers, and sever all ties with people outside of his community.
Fourth, they are put into social situations where others tell them their stories of redemption, which are very emotional. Galt’s followers not only attribute to themselves all positive traits, but expressly reinforce that the people against them are literally the most evil beings to ever have existed.
Fifth, after a sufficient period of indoctrination, the disciples are sent out into the world to gather more converts.
Sixth, the eschatology of John Galt requires an apocalyptic confrontation with authority figures – it is a battle of “us” vs. “them”, and if “they” win, the world will literally be destroyed.
Seventh, while preaching universal kinship and redemption, while assuming a humble mien, he is nevertheless the absolute ruler over his community.
As a person writing a satirical sequel to Atlas Shrugged, though, this really does contextualize what’s going on a great deal. When these kinds of cultic communities arise, for a while, everyone is exceptionally happy, or at least they claim to be. So when Dagny goes to visit the “Utopia of Greed”, it is quite plausible that everyone would be absolutely adoring of everything. Especially for a visitor whom they hope to indoctrinate.
Many people who enter into cults feel very socially isolated long before they’re in the cult – and Rand makes it a point to demonstrate that many of Galt’s followers did, in fact, feel socially isolated. Many of them are described as friendless, and even when they do have families, they are in distant if not hostile relationships with them. They “live for their work” in what seems profound loneliness.
You take these unsocial loners, who nevertheless yearn for a special connection with other people, and give them a place where they feel that special connection for the first time (particularly if they’re also suffering a serious emotional crisis, which they uniformly were when being taken to Galt’s Gulch), there is a tendency for the cult followers to go “all in”.
And for a while, the initial intensity of those emotions is enough to sustain the community. There is a sense of tremendous love and well-being in everything they do. Former cult members are exceptionally explicit about this: the early days of their life in the cult were the best of their lives.
For a while afterwards, even, the members will endure horrific abuses because they are so fond of the initial memories and feelings. They imagine that they can “do something” to make things “the way they were”.
All of this describes Galt’s Gulch as described in Atlas Shrugged. But there are several stages after this that are not included, but are very important to me since my sequel is satirical and more rooted in human psychology.
Eventually, the crises that sent people to the cult in the first place are either resolved or forgotten. The emotional connection fostered when everyone was strangers starts to fray, too, when people start learning enough about their fellow cultists to understand their failings. The initial intensity of emotion is exhausting, and people start to act more normally. At the same time, the cult leader tends to become increasingly demanding, especially when people inside the community start to question the leader’s judgment.
Almost without exception, the cult leader starts to get sexually… weird. Eventually, they start to feel comfortable securing sex partners for themselves, dissolving unions as pleases them, and things of this nature. The most interesting part of this is that while John Galt isn’t shown doing this, Ayn Rand did. One of the reasons so many people think Objectivism is a cult is because of Rand’s treatment of Nathaniel and Barbara Branden – functionally dissolving their marriage so Rand could have guilt-free sex with Nathaniel. That sort of madness, while not perpetrated by Galt, is nevertheless difficult to divorce from any reading of Rand’s books once you know about it.
Mostly, the cult then implodes. People just leave, usually profoundly embittered by the experience. (Eventually, this would happen with Rand, herself. Her acolytes, “the Collective”, would be so put off by Rand’s manipulation of the Brandens that they left her en masse. But it is equally true of those doomsday cults that say the world is going to end on such-and-such a date, and it doesn’t, or the aliens are coming to get them and don’t.)
Occasionally, the cult explodes into violent schisms, or even mass murder. Think the Jamestown massacre or Manson’s “Family”.
Almost without exception, the cult challenges the government in ways that are usually self-destructive. Think Waco, or even Jesus Christ and his attacks on Roman authority in Jerusalem.
Rarely, the cult survives and becomes a religion–but, generally, only after the initial cult leader dies. So after the death of Joseph Smith (who constantly challenged government authority, and was repeatedly chased away from communities because of this), it was under the hand of the more stable Brigham Young (who did not challenge government authority past the point of all reason, who was willing to negotiate with the government for the survival of his church) that Mormonism was able to really thrive.
As it is easy to see, likening John Galt to a cult leader (which I think it is clear he actually is) has a lot of narrative potential in a sequel.